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LHMP #173 Puff 2011 Toward a Philology of the Premodern Lesbian

Full citation: 

Puff, Helmut. 2011. “Toward a Philology of the Premodern Lesbian” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Puff, Helmut. 2011. “Toward a Philology of the Premodern Lesbian”

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Puff examines terminology for women in same-sex relations in a context of exchange and communication (that is, the question of how such terminology was shared and disseminated) using two focal texts: the Zimmern chronicle and the Colloquies of Erasmus. The Zimmern Chronicle was composed ca. 1564 by Count von Zimmern, covering the German family’s history from antiquity onward. It is a massive collection of all manner of trivia, left unfinished by the count’s death around 1566. [See Puff 2000 for a specific look at the episode in this document.]

In a chapter covering the life of one ancestor, there is a brief reference to “a poor servant-maid” named Greta who worked in the marketplace of Messkirch (or Mösskirch) who courted young women with a “masculine affect”. This activity provoked concern among the residents which resulted in a physical examination to determine if she was a “proper woman”. And that’s it: no consequences, no closure, no follow-up. The episode isn’t told in the style of a fabliau (which are featured elsewhere in the chronicle) or as a moral lesson or joke. It’s simply offered as a curious anecdote. Several frameworks for understanding were explored in the text: anatomy, astrology, ancient literature, or history

Puff argues that this is evidence that the knowledge of lesbianism in pre-modern Europe was more diverse and widely shared than is generally recognized. He posits that the presence of the woman who loved women crossed boundaries of language, genre, and knowledge systems and that understanding of this has been hampered by the silo effect of national philology studies.

The chronicle author’s confusion regarding Greta is not individual but is reflected in the various knowledge systems he brings to bear. For example, we know that Greta’s contemporaries believed that physiology might explain her behavior. Although examination contradicted that theory in Greta’s case, that knowledge didn’t put the concern to rest. A second theory was that an “unnatural constellation” at her birth might be the cause of her behavior. Any number of astrology manuals (beginning in classical times and handed down in later interpretations) discuss contexts that provoked sexual disorder. Alternately, the count turned to references to “hermaphrodites or androgynes” in ancient literature as a model for understanding. The term “hermaphrodite” also shows up in the 1405 request for pardon in the French case of Jehanne and Laurence. [See e.g., Benkov 2001 for details.] As in Greta’s case, theirs involved sexual behavior rather than visual gender transgression such as cross-dressing. The concept of the hermaphrodite staked out an unstable position between gender and sex, body and behavior, text and experience. The Count von Zimmern’s final theory was that Greta’s behavior was a sign of “the sinful times.”

Greta’s life and behavior belongs to the experiential world, but the interpretations placed on it come out of theoretical systems. Some of those systems (such as physiology) could be contradicted by experience, but the framework of morality could not. As the chronicle was meant to analyze and provide guidance on the Zimmern family’s fortunes, the question of Greta’s significance (in the section covering the author’s uncle) reflects the indeterminate status of those fortunes.

Where would the count’s knowledge about women who desired women come from? It would come from all levels of society, by both written and oral transmission. The chronicle accumulates information from a demonstrably wide range of sources. The nature of the anecdote suggests oral transmission through multiple iterations before being recorded. Oral networks involving both men and women were important for establishing and communicating standards of sexual behavior. If such informal debates were loud enough, they might be taken up by legal authorities. Legal records in south-western Germany attest to a wide variety of types of female same-sex behavior that came to the attention of authorities, and a variety of outcomes. The count’s chronicle became part of continuing those concerns at a remove from the original events.

Erasmus’ colloquies stand at another pole of communication: that of staged, formal argumentation, despite the superficial format of natural speech. [Note: “colloquy” literally means “conversation” and indicates a text in the form of a conversation between multiple parties. The purpose of a colloquy might be to make a logical argument, but the term was also used for language-learning texts intended to present vocabulary and grammar for everyday conversation.] Such texts, especially Latin ones, are less studied in the context of the “renaissance of lesbianism”, when 16th century vernacular translations of Sappho are treated as a watershed in accessibility and influence. Questions of transmission and translation are rarely addressed. Despite this glossing over of the Latin material, it is clear that knowledge of Sappho’s homoerotic reputation was in common currency before translations of her were into the vernacular were available.

Erasmus, in a colloquy of 1523, demonstrates this “common knowledge” in a passage where a young man is trying to persuade his beloved not to enter a convent. He points out with respect to the intellectual climate of the convent, “there are more who copy Sappho’s behavior than share her talent.” The young woman (who is identified in the title of the colloquy as “the girl with no interest in marriage”) is portrayed as innocently clueless to the allusion, saying, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Who, then, was the audience for this innuendo? Although the colloquy’s overt audience was young male students, the text was widely disseminated among elite readers, although it was translated from Latin to German somewhat later than his other works. “Sapphism” is only one of the hazards of convent life implied in the text, though the only one the woman claims ignorance of. Though women were denied formal schooling in Latin, they had access through family and private tutors.

Later in the colloquy, the woman leaves the convent after an unnamed encounter with clerical depravity. Did Erasmus mean to refer to Sappho the sexually voracious heterosexual, or Sappho the lesbian? The former interpretation was promulgated by the more familiar Phaon story, as opposed to the less familiar homoerotic verses. Further, even Latin translations of Sappho’s poetry weren’t yet published at the time Erasmus was writing. So was Sappho’s homoeroticism public knowledge even at that remove?

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